Job’s Suffering Under a Sovereign God
In the Book of Job, Job is essentially sifted like flour at the hands of Satan, by the permission of God. Job loses just about everything except his life and his wife. He loses his children, houses, live stock, servants, everything. He even loses his health for a time.
From the very beginning of the book, in the first chapter, it is clear God is the one in charge and in control of Satan’s sifting, using it and even purposing it for His good, just and right purposes that are pure and free from evil. In fact, God initiates the conversation with Satan, the one who would perform this very sifting. He says to Satan in Job 1:8, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” He then goes on later to give Satan permission, as well as boundaries, of what he can and cannot do to Job.
While all of this is true, God cannot be charged with evil or injustice of any kind. He is pure and holy, wise and almighty. There are no evil motives with God in this. And yet, to the difficulty of our understanding, He permits and even asks Satan to consider Job as a target for calamity. He initiates and prompts Satan to strike Job. This is hard to swallow. What is God up to? What is His goal in this?
Close to the end of the book, after all the calamity of the first two chapters Job experienced, he goes through a list of sins and trespasses to try and figure out what he has done to have received such calamity. It seems he assumes those things happened because of something wrong he had done.
As an example, from Job 31:5-8, he says, “If I have walked with falsehood and my foot has hastened to deceit; (Let me be weighed in a just balance, and let God know my integrity!) if my step has turned aside from the way and my heart has gone after my eyes, and if any spot has stuck to my hands, then let me sow, and another eat, and let what grows for me be rooted out.”
In verses 29 through 37, Job says, “If I have rejoiced at the ruin of him who hated me, or exulted when evil overtook him (I have not let my mouth sin by asking for his life with a curse), if the men of my tent have not said, ‘Who is there that has not been filled with his meat?’ (the sojourner has not lodged in the street; I have opened my doors to the traveler), if I have concealed my transgressions as others do by hiding my iniquity in my bosom, because I stood in great fear of the multitude, and the contempt of families terrified me, so that I kept silence, and did not go out of doors—Oh, that I had one to hear me! (Here is my signature! Let the Almighty answer me!) Oh, that I had the indictment written by my adversary! Surely I would carry it on my shoulder; I would bind it on me as a crown; I would give him an account of all my steps; like a prince I would approach him.”
But what is God’s response? We’ll get to that later.
The Vast Depths and Seeming Injustice of Romans 9
On the other side of the Bible, we have Romans 9, a picture of God that is bigger than any of us really want to consider. Preceding Romans 9 is Romans 8, one of the grand climax points of the Bible in which infinitely wonderful promises are made to us that can sustain us through any, any trial. Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. Nothing. No exception.
However, Romans 8 presents a crisis. The crisis is that if God’s promises stand (which they do) and He will do as He says in that chapter, why is it a majority of the Jews (His chosen people!) have now turned and rejected the promised Messiah, and unless they turn to Him in faith will go to hell for all eternity? In the first part of the chapter even, Paul laments their hardness of heart and unbelief. He even goes so far as to say he would willingly substitute himself in hell (cut off from Christ) for them if they could be saved! So if anyone feels the weight of this, it is Paul.
And the crisis for us who are not Jews but Gentile believers in Christ is that if God’s promises to them appear to have failed, how can we know His promises to us in Romans 8 will stand? The promises of Romans 8 rest structurally on the difficult, pride-shattering doctrines Paul iterates in Romans 9.
What is Paul’s answer to this conundrum in chapter 9? He says in verse 6, “But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel.” So, as Paul will explain further on, there actually is no conundrum. God never promised to save and deliver every single physical descendant of Israel, but rather only the children of promise, that is, the promise made to Abraham. There is a physical Israel and there is a spiritual Israel. To further drive this home, he makes clear in verse 8, “It is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.” Who are the children of promise? Spiritual Israel, or as Paul says, the children of the promise, that is, those God has set forth in eternity past to save, as indicated in Ephesians 1.
In verses 7 through 13, Paul then gives two examples of the children of the promise from the history of Israel: God chose Isaac and not Ishmael, then Jacob and not Esau. In the instance of Isaac, Paul displays that God’s choice of whom shall be saved is not rooted in familial lineage. In the case of Jacob, His choice is not rooted in his good or bad choices. Rather, in both cases, God’s choice of whom He shall save is rooted in His pure, free grace. God simply chooses whom will save. This is why it is called unconditional election, that is, there is no condition a person must meet that makes a person chosen. This removes all cause for our boasting on the grounds of our good or bad works or even on the grounds of our faith. Grace gives rise to and precedes faith. Or in other words, faith itself is a gift of grace, provided in the cross and resurrection. Salvation is all of grace, as Spurgeon said.
Paul preempts our natural, rebellious response to all of this shocking information by asking the question for us: “Is there injustice on God’s part?” in God choosing one and not the other? Or another way to say this in the form of a statement is, “That’s unfair!” But Paul’s response? “By no means!” Paul’s justification of God in this is verse 15: “For He says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.'” This is who God is. God is sovereign, completely. That is what it means, at the deepest level, for God to be God. In Exodus 3, God makes His name known to Moses: “I AM who I AM.” In Exodus 33, He makes known the essence of His glory to Moses: “I mercy whom I mercy, I have compassion on whom I have compassion.” There are no other sovereigns over anything in all the universe, even over our very destinies. God is God, we are not, as Stephen Curtis Chapman has said. That comes with implications.
What is Paul’s conclusion from the above information? Verse 16 says, “So then it [meaning the granting of mercy to one and not the other] depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.” That’s self-explanatory.
Then Paul ratchets the argument up a step further and draws on another example, the example of Pharaoh: verse 17 says, “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might  show my power in you, and that  my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.'”
Paul draws a very uncomfortable conclusion from this example that is nevertheless in our Scriptures: “So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.” That is hard to accept. Many simply turn away from a passage like this at this point. Our God is really THAT sovereign and that rocks us fragile humans to the core and it flies in the face of so much of what modern evangelicalism has taught for years, that we will so choose God whenever we so feel like it. That is the American way right? Pull up your boot straps and choose Jesus!
Now the logical, natural response raised in man’s mind to this is given by Paul in verse 19, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” Sounds like a reasonable question right? If God chooses whom He will save and passes over those He hasn’t chosen, why in the world does he still hold us responsible?
Tying Together the Response of God in the Book of Job to Paul’s Response to the Hypothetical Questioner in Romans 9
In each of these passages, God exercises His sovereignty. That much is clear. In Job’s case, he exercises His sovereignty in suffering. We always say, God has a purpose in suffering, but we don’t usually flesh out the theological implications of what that purpose is, that is clearly given in Job. In the case of Romans 9, God executes His sovereignty in salvation and damnation, to the glory of His grace and justice, respectively. We frequently hear the words, “God is in control,”but that has implications tied to it as well. Those implications are fleshed out in this passage.
God’s response to Job after his questioning is quite strong, in terms of responding to the audacity that a man should put God in the dock. As an example, in Job 38:1-7, the Lord says to him, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”
He continues in verses 16 through 18, “Have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep? Have the gates of death been revealed to you, or have you seen the gates of deep darkness? Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth? Declare, if you know all this.” Basically, The Lord is saying, are you Me? Do you have any idea what you’re talking about in regard to what I’m up to in your life? Do you have My infinite wisdom and knowledge, the very same knowledge that created the world?
Job speaks for a moment, before God continues His just questioning of Job, and says in verses 4 through 5, “Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further.” The Lord then continues and says, “Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be in the right? Have you an arm like God, and can you thunder with a voice like his? Adorn yourself with majesty and dignity; clothe yourself with glory and splendor.”
Job finally comes to his end and is completely humbled and answers the Lord in Job 42:2-6, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you make it known to me.’ I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”
In Romans 9, after the hypothetical questioner poses his inquiries, that if God chooses some for salvation and passes over others, then “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?,” Paul’s responds. And it sounds very familiar to God’s response to Job. Starting in verse 20 through 24, “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?”
So what is our response to this? Like Job, we shut our mouths and repent of our pride and seeming wisdom and knowledge. God’s grace and mercy alone is our only hope. If you will humble yourself before Him, He has promised to lift you up, in Christ.
The Final Goal of Why God Does What He Does in Suffering and Election: Glory
In each of these instances, there is one thing God has as the goal of why He does things the way He does: glory. And we, like Job concludes, should shut our mouths, repent and cease all rebellion and resistance to Him and His rights as God. We are sinners in the hands of an angry (at our wickedness), yet vastly merciful God. Who are we to answer back to Him, as if we think He’s out of His mind for doing what He does? God exercises His sovereignty in Job’s suffering that He may bring glory to Himself and in the process, Job is made more into His image. God exercises His sovereignty in salvation and damnation to bring glory to His grace and justice.
It may sound extremely selfish for God to have as His goal in our suffering as well as our salvation or damnation, His glory. If we humans do this, attempting to exalt ourselves in the same manner, we are arrogant and unrighteous, right? We are selfish and prideful for doing such a thing. But why is that? Is it not because we’re asserting that we are better than all and should be made much of, that we are, in essence, gods ourselves? That right belongs to God and God alone. Only He can rightfully exalt Himself, because He is the final and highest authority in all the universe. God is the infinitely worthy One, deserving of all praise and exaltation in the highest. Has He not right over the clay to do with as He sees fit? Who are we to answer back to God? We are sinners, deserving of eternal conscience torment! We all deserve hell. Yet it is a wonder He even mercifully saves one, let alone billions.
These things are hard. Really hard. I do not claim to have arrived nor am settled in my heart in all of this. I believe these things with all of my heart and mind because they are in the Bible and are frankly very clear. But as a sinner, I struggle in my wavering, sinful heart with God’s right to do with my life as He pleases. That is difficult. There is a part of me that still wants to exert my rights. This is sinful and wicked. The Book of Job and Romans 9 are pride-flattening. That is their very design. We can boast of nothing coming from ourselves or put God in the dock, as if He must answer us for why He does what He does in our lives. If God so chooses to sovereignly permit some evil to befall me, He is perfectly within His right to do so and is wise and right in doing so. If God so chose to leave me in my sin and rebellion, who am I to complain to Him that He didn’t change my heart to believe in Him? That is hard and causes me to tremble because I am a frail, sinful human. My only hope is His grace and mercy, which I know He will bestow on me, since He has already begun a good work within me and will bring it to completion at the day of Christ Jesus, something I am eagerly looking forward to.
The promises of Romans 8 stand because God is sovereign in salvation and once He sets out to save, He always accomplishes that task. The Golden Chain of Romans 8:29-30 is a beautiful display of this unbreakable link. He is completely and absolutely for me. Therefore, who can be against me? Romans 8 rests on the unfathomable and frightening depths of God’s infinite power displayed in Romans 9. He saved me, not because of anything in myself, even foreseen faith, but rather because of His love and grace. In fact, you cannot have a proper understanding of sola fide, that we are saved through faith alone, until you see that faith itself is a gift of God’s grace. For what else made you to differ from others who aren’t believers? Your broken, sin-bound will? Or God’s grace giving you eyes to see and ears to hear His call to salvation? I boast only in the cross as the grounds and means of my salvation. At the cross, God effectively granted my belief in His work by paying in full for my unbelief.
God’s sovereign grace and mercy to us is even displayed in our suffering, such as with Job. What is God’s gracious goals for us in suffering? Romans 5:3-5 says, “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” And James 1:2-4 says, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
These things can be hard to work through, but they are vastly worth it in your relationship with and worship of Christ. If you have not wrestled with these passages, I would highly recommend doing so because they display a picture of God that deepens and gives greater substance to our understanding of just how awesome and wonderful and in control He really is. It also gives weight to understanding of how we were saved. And practically, in times of trial, we can know and have it settled that God is absolutely for us, even in the worst of circumstances. God’s absolute sovereignty is a sweet and wonderful thing that gives me massive comfort in a world consumed by sin and turmoil.